Film Review: Paa

A would-be tearjerker without the singing-dancing musical numbers of typical Bollywood fare seen in the U.S., the lackluster <i>Paa </i>is for die-hard Amitabh Bachchan fans only&#8212;of which there is no small number.

The latest pairing of 67-year-old Bollywood legend Amitabh Bachchan and his movie-star son Abhishek Bachchan, the tear-stained soaper Paa (“Dad") seems designed to evoke the filmic frisson of Henry and Jane Fonda together in On Golden Pond—it's the duo's first family drama that doesn't involve a mob family. Reversing the real-life dynamic, Abhishek plays father to Amitabh's progeria-stricken 12-year-old, whose accelerated aging makes him look about 90. And while Bachchan père's portrayal of the pre-teen protagonist is a tour de force, it can't buoy a tedious tale that might appeal to his longtime fans but will likely turn off stateside audiences looking for either exotic Slumdog drama or the lavish musical escapism of typical Bollywood extravaganzas.

Unlike Robin Williams in the similar Jack (1996), Bachchan, as the aged-looking Auro, brooks no sentimental shtick. Playing a student at a tony private school in Lucknow, the capital of the northern India state of Uttar Pradesh, he deftly portrays a typically status-conscious, sullen pre-teen boy edged with a nicely self-aware sense of entitlement due to his special condition. Bachchan knows just how far to push to make the boy headstrong and infuriating without having us lose sympathy or understanding, and the Big B, as Amitabh is fondly known, continues to prove he's not only the Clint Eastwood/Paul Newman/Sean Connery hybrid of Indian cinema, but also a brilliant character actor who can submerge into a role that calls for genuinely childish—and not formulaically "childlike"—behavior.

The son of a successful, single-mom gynecologist, Vidya (Vidya Balan), Auro is casually accepted by his schoolmates as just another kid—albeit one a few heads taller and occasionally prone to collapse and needing oxygen. Living with his mom and grandma (Arundathi Nag), whom he's cheekily nicknamed "Bum," Auro only knows that his father had wanted him aborted, and that med-student Vidya had had the child herself and disappeared from the father's life. When idealistic young Parliament member Amol Arte (Abhishek Bachchan) visits Auro's school, he becomes taken with the spunky lad, neither knowing their relationship with each other, and forms a friendship that, while believably tenuous and a bit uneasy, never exhibits any growing emotional bond. When the truth is inevitably revealed, it proves too late and leaden to have much power or impact.

A go-nowhere subplot involves Arte's plan for urban renewal of an open-sewer slum. We see him as a Kennedyesque figure visiting shanties of grateful untouchables—who later turn on him when a ruthless developer visits and seemingly flips a switch in their brains. The serious news media, depicted in the typically Bollywood way as all tabloid scum and paparazzi, likewise goes after Arte through some vaguely articulated mob reasoning, leading Arte to go on air and, in so many words, compare the press to terrorists. By this point, the movie, produced by the Bachchans' company, AB Corp., seems to have gone from fictional family drama to Bollywood dynasty drama. Neither proves very satisfying.